Home People Interviews The Deep Water Blues: Q&A With Rohan Arthur

The Deep Water Blues: Q&A With Rohan Arthur

The Deep Water Blues: Q&A With Rohan Arthur

Dr. Rohan Arthur Photo: Vishnu Som.

A founder-trustee of the Nature Conservation Foundation, Dr. Rohan Arthur heads the organisation’s Oceans and Coasts programme. Rohan has worked in reef systems around India and on the Kenyan coast for close to two decades, and has a special interest in studying the impacts of climate change on coral reefs.

In an email interview with Cara Tejpal, for Sanctuary’s August 2015 cover story, he elucidates on the dangers of neglecting our marine ecosystems.

Sea temperatures rising, coral bleaching, bio-diversity loss...a lot is going on under water. What are the most visible impacts of climate change on our oceans?

For me personally, the single-most dramatic sign that climate change is with us to stay was the coral mass bleaching event of 1998. If anyone needed positive proof that something catastrophic was happening to our seas, you only had to be snorkelling above the incredibly beautiful reefs of the Lakshadweep in the summer of 1998 watching them die before your eyes. I remember very vividly being overwhelmed by a sense of absolute hopelessness as coral in reef after reef turned fluorescent shades of green and blue before losing their colour and dying. I had to leave the islands when the monsoons forced me to, but when I returned in December that year, the barren and dead reefs that met me were absolutely devastating. The reefs of the Lakshadweep, like reefs across the tropics, still carry the scars of that event – indeed, some continue to be the haunted cemeteries of 1998. In the Lakshadweep, some of the worst affected reefs carry the once resonant and now sadly mocking names given to them by divers who knew them in their prime. These names (Garden of Eden, Japanese Garden, etc) viewed against the reality of what these spectral reefscapes now are, say as much about the state of our oceans than any hard statistics I can give you.

Despite our vast coastline, we in India have a nebulous, slightly wary relationship with the sea. What happens below its surface is invisible to us. It is a fluid boundary we dare not cross, a place of menace and danger, of drownings and submerged idols. This disconnect makes it much more difficult to communicate how critical the oceans around us are for the vital and immensurable services the sea provides us. It is the engine that drives our seasons, determining the strength of the Indian monsoon, still the foundation of our economy. It is an immensely productive cornucopia that feeds us with an abundance of food. Its nearshore and coastal habitats (seagrass meadows, coral and rocky reefs, mangroves, sand dunes, salt marshes, etc.) are natural fortresses, protecting us from the worst storm surges and coastal erosion. I can go on. Yet the forces of global change (of which changes in climate are just a part) are unravelling all these services. And while some of this unravelling can be seen with the sudden and unmistakable shocks of coral bleaching events (we’ve had at least two more since 1998), for the most part this is an insidious process as ecological pathways come apart in small bits. This only serves to further mask already invisible processes as we become rapidly inured to new normalities characterised by decreasing expectations of what our marine ecosystems may have looked like in the absence of these forces.

Have these changes started to affect the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities? How do you foresee these impacts multiplying to affect more people?

Once again, I will speak from my experience of studying the coral reefs of the Lakshadweep for the last 18 years or so, since it is the system I am most familiar with. On these low-lying atolls the impacts of the changes I have outlined above are self-evident. The health of the reefs on these islands is linked completely with the livelihoods of the communities that live here. Apart from a dramatic decline in food fish resources that is beginning to become increasingly acute in many systems here, the islands of the Lakshadweep face much more dire issues that threaten the continued habitability of these populations.

The islands are essentially tiny slivers of sand protected within a calm lagoon whose crest keeps its head above the water thanks to the constant production of living coral. With every bleaching event, the integrity of this outer framework is compromised; the cyclones and monsoon storms that once battered the outer reef but lost their force before they reached the land, will soon start hitting the coast with increasing force. Perhaps even more worrying is the future of fresh water on these atolls. Every inhabited island in the Lakshadweep is dependent on a limited lens of groundwater for its survival. As the atoll frameworks erode, these groundwater lenses are likely to get increasingly compromised through sea-water incursions. Once this happens, no amount of engineering solutions (such as desalination plants) can adequately supply enough water to support the 70,000 plus population of these tiny islands. The Lakshadweep is looking at a possible future in which the entire population may have to be relocated to the mainland as the islands become unliveable. I am uncertain that we are prepared for this at the level of policy, economically or socio-culturally.

Are India's current laws on marine management sufficient, even if management itself is lacking? What is the status of our Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)?

From what I know of marine management in the Indian context, we are still largely trapped in terrestrial paradigms of thought, and our laws of protection and control are certainly not prepared for the rather more fluid ecological realities of marine and coastal systems.

The few MPAs we have are essentially lines in the water, drawn out of convenience more than because they represent ecologically relevant boundaries. Worse, few (if any) of our current MPAs take into account the multi-use environments that our coastal systems have always been, with coastal communities dependent on these systems for a range of services – and whose identities are strongly linked to the system. Without their active participation, no form of top-down control is likely to be effective or sustainable in the long term, no matter how strictly it is imposed.  Social scientists in India and elsewhere are increasingly showing that these traditional communities often have evolved systems of self-regulated harvest that work reasonably well as long as local institutions are sufficiently empowered. Often these communities have to fight a futile battle against forces of industrial overexploitation that are rapidly overtaking the seas, as well as the collapse of coastal ecosystems due to developmental projects, pollution, and oil and mineral exploitation.

The near future looks bleak as current governmental policy rides roughshod over centuries of tradition (curious in itself for a government that pays so much lip service to that same tradition) pursuing the naïve neo-liberal phantom of infinite growth.  Our laws and management systems are not geared, nor do they acknowledge the inevitable surprise that is built into marine ecosystem functioning – the inherent discontinuities and thresholds that exist in complex social-ecological systems. Pushed past these thresholds these systems will be hard-pressed to recover, and no amount of effective management will be sufficient to put the pieces back together again.

Photo: Vishnu Som.

What are the immediate steps that the country should take to attempt to restore the health of marine ecosystems?

Briefly this: Acknowledge limits to exploitation, growth and development. There are much better ways to measure success than naïve economic productivity, and even if this is your metric, acknowledge that market dynamics and social-ecological dynamics work at very different scales.

Understand how ecological and social-ecological systems work in marine systems. Our marine and coastal environments are the least studied ecosystems in the country and we have barely begun to map their distributions and document their species, far less know how they function as living ecosystems. This is critical if we have to know how to manage them and what levels of extractive pressures they can take.

Learn from traditional knowledge. Local communities have been living and working with coastal systems for generations and have amassed a vast amount of knowledge about the functioning of these systems. This body of knowledge is being rapidly lost and needs urgent documentation before it disappears. Where still alive and active, the traditional institutions of control that govern resource use need to be strengthened and supported. They may offer us creative solutions to managing marine systems before all the science is in.

Recognise that marine ecosystems, perhaps even more than terrestrial ones, have built-in unpredictabilities, and are often prone to sudden and dramatic shifts in state that are difficult to reverse. Rather than attempting to manage a single process, our management of these systems needs to be much more holistic, supporting the inherent capacity of these systems to buffer shocks. This will require knowing exactly what factors contribute to this resilience. Even if this is understood, caution is critical, humbly acknowledging the limits of our certainties. We need to manage coastal and marine systems with an abundant precautionary principle.

Look for creative solutions. While MPAs are everywhere being proposed as the best way to manage our marine areas, they are far from being a magic bullet, and are associated with a range of problems ranging from ecological feasibility, compliance and control, ecological effectiveness and social equity. These are often difficult or impossible to resolve. However every situation may offer its own unique, context-specific solution that may serve the same ecological function even if it may not look at all like a standard MPA solution. These may often involve working with communities, industry and other stake-holder groups that are not often seen as traditional partners in ecosystem conservation. Being open to these solutions is essential.  Measuring the effectiveness of these solutions is equally critical, as is the willingness to adapt or abandon a solution if it is not working.

If there is one golden rule I would ascribe to with marine conservation it would be - “Whatever works”.

Have any nations taken pro-active measures for ocean protection that we should be seeking to emulate?

There are several interesting examples where local communities, marine scientists and government have come together to effectively protect their marine systems. Perhaps the best documented is from the Philippines where reefs are protected both for ecological integrity as well economic sustainability in a unique partnership between bureaucrats, communities and coral reef scientists.

Across the Pacific communities are rediscovering their once vibrant local systems of resource governance and using these to adaptively manage their reefs. They don’t always work, but when they do, they offer the possibility of a win-win solution that should be supported and emulated.

Your line of work must have gifted you sights and experiences that are both exquisite and appalling.  Can you tell me a little about both?

Despite the gathering gloom, studying the coral reefs and seagrasses of India is an infinitely rewarding adventure. Perhaps the most satisfying experiences for me are the small epiphanies I have when, after diving the same patch of reef for more than a decade, I suddenly start to see a pattern that was there all along, that tells me something vital about the way the reef functions. What follows is usually several years of hard work as our team attempts to validate (or rubbish) the mechanisms we believe are working to make the reefs look the way they are.

Beyond these intellectual fulfilments however, I am still filled with an inexplicable amount of hope every time I see a little Acropora, Pocillopora or Goniastrea coral recruit struggling for a place in the sun. Each of these little spats that colour the reef a few years after a major mortality, represent the resilient and beautiful cussedness of nature that refuses to be cowed down despite the worst we can do to it. And that for me is reassuring and affirming.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 8, August 2015.


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